My Kid’s Summers Are Way Less Boring Than My Childhood Holidays
Will they still help him make sense of his world?
Some 20 years back, the moment our school closed for the summer, Ma would cut short our ecstasy and say, “Figure your holiday homework and give me which notebooks you need in Calcutta.” Didi and I would then pack with mixed feelings about yet another rendezvous with the city we were forced to love every summer.
We did enjoy meeting our cousins in Calcutta. My mother’s four other sisters and their kids came to ‘dida bari’ the same time we did, so the house was full and noisy. We liked to play with them, share notes on the books we were reading and even to flaunt our school stationery. But we also felt wary of visiting the City of Joy for the umpteenth time.
Our grandmother lived in a huge house with three rooms and a porch to put those rooms to shame. The entire place was a little out of the storybooks we read, the kind Alice was not supposed to meander towards. And the bathroom was the scariest to my tiny mind — one portion of this bathroom did not have a roof and the other half had a small reservoir that resembled a well. It was from this tank that we pulled out buckets of water for our ablutions and bath.
For as long as I can remember, my Ma did not entertain any discussion on new summer vacation spots; the first thing we knew was the Rajdhani train after our schools closed. Our fate for the next two months was sealed.
Two decades later, my Didi does the same thing.
Stuck in an era when kids found something to do on their own, no matter what, my sister sends her daughter to me each summer, knowing my toddler will give his cousin company through the long days. I lose a few pounds figuring how to keep them engaged. I plan a trip to the mall or amusement park every weekend. The treats are umpteen – junk food every alternate day, the occasional chocolate cake just to see the look on their faces. At home, I allow the kids from the building a free pass to come and wreck my home with their play. I leave the television at their mercy, allowing them cartoons in any language they please. I play an animation film every day for them after dinner. Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella — my hard drives are testimony to what an amazing mom and aunt I am.
And yet, the two children come to me every ten minutes and say they are bored. “What should we do now, mashi?” my wide-eyed niece asks. The house erupts with fights, the two come crying over something and everything. By the end of the vacation, the kids are even more restless than before.
Of course, screens are the answer to almost all childish woes. Guiltily each day, I count the hours they spend in front of a phone or laptop. Concerned about how little they truly experience life or learn new things, I literally count the days for the vacations to come to a close.
Ironically, amid this chaos, it occurs to me that we were much happier as kids, even though the only time my mother and her sisters fussed over us was during meals, when we filled our bellies with the most delicious Bengali cooking.
My first lessons in swimming were in the pukur next to grandma’s house. My cousin brother, older and taller, dived into the deep pond, stunning us with his skills. Impatient to learn, I dived right after him one day – and learned how water fills up the lungs in a few seconds. But I also learned to keep a safe distance from the water till I knew how to swim better.
Our many secret trips to the asbestos roof were educative, too. We learnt to tiptoe on the hot tin, have a go at the pickles kept there for drying, and expertly return to bed next to Ma without waking her. One bad day, my Didi slipped, making a noise loud enough to alert every adult and put an end to our ill-gotten treats. It was only after I racked my brains and volunteered to pluck flowers from the terrace for the daily pujo, that we managed to steal some of those pickles again.
On most days, we had absolutely zilch to do. The hours were spent going to the nearby handpump to fill water bottles, sleeping or lying down quietly, listening to the elders’ talk. The television was black and white and had no cable, the books were all in Bengali, most of them by Tagore, so we were stuck with the two Enid Blytons we had bothered to bring with us. The infamous Calcutta load shedding meant we lay without electricity almost every other night. The relentless mosquitoes taught us survival. I learnt to face my fears in that house – to go to that eerie bathroom at night.
I learned to make sense of the world.
Between then and now, my generation has traversed an entire period bursting with technological advancements. For every toy that became readily available, for every desktop that made way to an iPad, for every American brand of chips or chocolate that came to the Indian supermarkets, we became just that bit lazier. We gave our kids screens, filled the rest of their time with activities and treats.
It’s not like my Ma or grandmother weren’t stressed or had help to keep us engaged. Sure, parents have it a little more hectic today, what with dual-income households, less familial support and problematic work-life balances. It gets tempting to hand kids a screen and get on with life.
But I believe it goes deeper than that. Truth is, our own downtime has become all about the mobile screen, be it reading a longform, binging on a murder mystery or uploading a snap of aesthetically plated khichdi on Insta. Unwittingly, the same has become the default downtime for our kids, too. We think what works for us should work for them, too – casually forgetting what actually did work for us.
The patience those long hours of loadshedding taught us, the imagination that boredom birthed in us, the beauty of solitude we learnt being left to our own devices is something my child or niece may never learn. So accustomed are they in the awesomeness of everyday that they’ll never know the joy of watching ‘Hirok Rajar Deshe’ out of the blue on Doordarshan on a black and white telly on a random Sunday.
But then again, the children discovered the fun of shelling peas with my husband yesterday and the glee I saw on their faces was something else. Maybe summer still teaches a thing or two.
Runa Mukherjee Parikh is a freelance journalist and has been reporting on education, women and culture extensively for nine years. A persistent animal rights crusader right from her teenage years, she has moved from feeding dogs in her area to writing about the Animal Birth Control programme in her city. Brought up in a very culturally inclined Bengali home, she is now a part of a big Gujarati family and is figuring out her role in it. A mother to a toddler with mixed roots, she lately spends most of her time parenting and watching other people parent, usually with a bowl of popcorn. Tweets at @tweetruna.